A striking feature of life during a pandemic is our interest in rules. Rapidly changing legal rules regulate our everyday decisions about where we can go, what we can do, and whom we can visit. In addition to the legal rules there are the various, and sometimes conflicting, recommendations about what we should do, and social norms that develop from those recommendations. These rules may not align with the golden rule, “do unto others as you would want them do unto you.” Although we normally think of the golden rule as applying to specific actions, there is an interesting philosophical tradition that uses it to develop and evaluate rules: act on rules that others should act on as well. Rules that meet this criteria I call “golden rules,” and they can be particularly helpful in a pandemic.
Much of moral philosophy starts with our widely shared moral judgments and then tries to provide a more systematic account of them. The golden rule is among the moral principles that many people accept. The “as you would want them to do unto you” version of it, however, runs into philosophical problems. Immanuel Kant was perhaps the most famous Enlightenment proponent of acting on principles that others should act on as well, but he rejected the common formulation because of its focus on “wants.” We want different things and do not always want what is actually good or right. In a pandemic, “I will hug others because I would want others to hug me” ignores the fact that those you try to hug may want to maintain social distance, that your wants are not their wants, and what you want may actually be harmful to them.
Philosophers such as John Locke, George Berkeley, and Francis Hutcheson (writing before Kant) developed a version of the golden rule that avoids this problem by assessing rules not in terms of what a particular person happens to want, but whether the consequences of a rule being adopted by all of us would be good for human well-being. To evaluate a principle about whether to greet a member of your extended family with a hug, we need to consider not just subjective attitudes toward hugging, but the best evidence about both the physical and psychological effects of hugging versus social distancing.
What is interesting about this approach is that they were allowing for the fact that we are fallible. In the absence of a rule we should to try to take in all of the relevant information and make an all-things-considered judgment about what is right, which is difficult to do. Rules simplify decision making and, in the best cases, lead to fewer moral mistakes. Rules don’t actually take away our discretion, they just set boundaries for it. A stay-at-home order that allows people to leave for “essential activities” leaves space for interpretation about what counts as an essential activity. Identifying the rules we should follow involves thinking about how other people who, like us, are fallible, would interpret and apply those rules.
In Locke’s version of the argument, the rules regarding religious toleration must be thought of as reciprocal rules that others have as much right to interpret and act on as I do, recognizing that they, as independent people with an independent capacity for judgment, may think differently than I do. If I propose the rule “Use force to promote the true religion,” I must recognize that different governments will think different religions are true and that many governments will use force to promote the wrong one. Locke thought a principle of religious toleration would have better consequences if adopted by everyone. In Berkeley’s version, one evaluates decisions about whether to revolt against the government by imagining what will happen when fallible people make their own judgments about whether a revolution is justifiable. Not everyone who feels justified in taking up arms against the government is right. Hutcheson used similar ideas and developed them into a more general framework for evaluating rules based on the consequences of many people trying to act upon them.
This tradition has something important to teach us in the midst of the current pandemic as we evaluate and formulate rules. Underlying inequalities of health and wealth mean that a perspective of reciprocity is important. I should imagine the impact of a rule not just on myself and people like me, but on those whose circumstances are very different. I also need to remember that the rules that guide us also address other people as moral agents. If a rule, whether a legal one or an informal one, restricts us to “essential activities,” I need to think about how other people, with whom I may disagree, may interpret what activities are essential. I should not arbitrarily claim more discretion for myself than I grant to others.
We relate to both formal and informal rules from a variety of perspectives. Sometimes we are critically asking what the rules should be so that we can evaluate, as citizens in a democracy, whether those making the rules are doing a good job. Sometimes we are deciding which rules we will reinforce via social pressure. How many people wear masks will depend in part on how much social pressure there is to wear them or not to wear them. Wearing or not wearing a mask in public is a partly a vote for which norm will prevail. Sometimes we are deciding whether we will follow the rules that others have made. Here again we can ask whether we would grant others the same permission to depart from the rules based on their judgment as we grant to ourselves. Sometimes we are deciding what rules of conduct we will adopt for ourselves in the places where the legal rules leave room for discretion. We should not just think about our particular actions, but what would happen if others acted on the principle that we propose and on which we act.
Alex Tuckness is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Iowa State University. His current research focuses on the legislative metaphor as a way of thinking about morality both in the past and today. He is the author (with John Michael Parrish) of The Decline of Mercy in Public Life (Cambridge University Press 2014), and This is Political Philosophy (with Clark Wolf; Wiley 2016).